The privacy gap in your doorbell
Lawmakers in Congress have previously raised concerns about Ring’s close ties to the police force and how often the Amazon-owned company has shared footage with law enforcement without the owners’ consent. Markey, in particular, has long criticized the company for potential privacy concerns over its video doorbells.
Larkin’s story shows how far a request can go, even if a camera owner initially cooperates with the police.
After sending the After the initial recordings, Larkin found the police demands onerous. “He sent one asking for all the footage from October 25,” Larkin said. That was a much bigger question, he said. Larkin told POLITICO that he has five cameras around his home that record in 5- to 15-second bursts when activated. He also has three cameras at his home as well as 13 cameras at the store he owns, which is not near his home. All of these cameras are connected to his Ring account.
He refused this request. He says his main concern initially was practical: each clip, even if it was only 5 seconds long, would take up to a minute to download and send.
After ceasing to cooperate, he did not hear from the detective until receiving an email from Ring telling him his account was the subject of a Hamilton Police warrant for his arrest.
This time, Larkin couldn’t choose which cameras he could send video from. The warrant included all five of his outdoor cameras and also added a sixth camera located at his home and all video from cameras linked to his account, including cameras at his store. It would include footage captured by cameras he had in his living room and bedroom, as well as the 13 cameras he had installed in his shop linked to his account.
Larkin was now outraged that police were requesting footage of his home for an investigation he wasn’t even involved in, and wanted to fight the warrant. He figured a lawyer would have been too expensive, and he only had about seven days to take action before Ring complied. He still doesn’t understand how a judge could sign an arrest warrant asking for footage from a camera in his home while the investigation focused on his neighbor.
“That tells me the cops can go in and subpoena anyone no matter how weak their evidence is,” he said.
Hamilton police got the requested video footage.
His director of community affairs, Brian Ungerbuehler, declined to comment on why the agency had requested footage from all of Larkin’s cameras, citing an active investigation. He added that the department has not received video footage of inside the home.
Larkin said it was fortunate that his indoor camera listed in the request was unplugged for the period specified in the warrant, while his living room and bedroom cameras only activate when his home alarm system is active.
Privacy advocates point out that police do not have absolute powers to request footage: they must obtain a warrant from a judge, who is expected to exercise some control, just as they would when issuing a search warrant. Judge Daniel Haughey, who signed the warrant, did not respond to requests for comment on Larkin’s case.
Although Larkin’s warrant was unusually comprehensive, warrants themselves are becoming increasingly common. In 2020, following concerns from activists and lawmakers about Ring’s role in community surveillance, the company began releasing a transparency report on law enforcement requests it receives.
The report shows that the number of search warrants received has increased significantly each year. In 2019, the first year covered by the report, she received 536 search warrants. In the first half of 2022, 1,622 inquiries were received.
Ring has also refused to provide footage in the past. According to its transparency report, it has not returned information on 113 of the 536 warrants it received in 2019 and on 634 of 1,610 warrants in 2020.
Daley, the spokesman, told POLITICO that the company carefully reviews every search warrant and court hearing it receives when deciding how to respond, and that its products give its customers choices to protect people’s privacy . While you can delete footage stored with Ring and data associated with your account, you need a court order to prevent the company from complying with government requests.
While companies are legally required to cooperate with the police when they receive a warrant, they can back down on their provision if they feel the request is going too far. Apple has notoriously resisted FBI requests to unlock devices, a stance it still holds.
Ring stopped providing information about how many warrants went unanswered in 2021 and did not respond to POLITICO’s question as to why the disclosures have changed.
Although the Fourth Amendment aims to protect Americans from sweeping law enforcement searches, the legal system’s protection of citizens has not kept pace with digital advances.
When police request a search warrant, the affidavits usually need to be specific, down to the item being searched for and the room it is in. When it comes to electronic communications, the line is more blurred. With the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, Congress created a new standard for surveillance as technology evolved: the act prevents unauthorized government interception of electronic data. But it doesn’t address more nuanced questions, such as how much data the government can request. Because the data for an electronic search can be nearly limitless, courts are struggling with how to limit those search warrants, Lynch said.
As a result, she said, it’s common to see data search warrants asking for swathes of digital records, which judges would see as exceeding if it were a physical search.
In warrants for digital communications, such as emails, search logs, and messages, the subject of the warrant is usually the suspect being investigated — but when it comes to surveillance footage that passively records hours of footage in public spaces, you can be an innocent bystander and still find the police asking for your details. The lack of legal controls over what police can request, and judges not properly reviewing those warrants, opens the door for even interior shots to be lumped together with these legal demands.
For its part, Ring says it would be open to discussing data request guidelines and guardrails about what law enforcement agencies can get from an electronic warrant. “We welcome the opportunity to work with Congress to ensure we protect our customers while supporting the legitimate needs of law enforcement,” Ring’s Daley said.
Privacy advocates in organizations like the EFF and ACLU have called for reforms to ECPA that would close some of the loopholes in government data requests, e.g. B. the possibility of obtaining data without a search warrant from a third party.
Still, these reforms wouldn’t address problems with judges signing arrest warrants without proper review, leaving people like Larkin fighting for privacy from government requests.
“That’s what upsets me the most — the fact that a judge just gave it the go-ahead,” Larkin said. “He’s only going to hand me footage of me and the case doesn’t even affect me in any way, shape or form.”